With a big family waiting in the wings, Edward and Geraldine Conheady realised they needed to expand if they were going to offer future farming opportunities.
About 20 years ago they had one farm at Noorat with about 200 cows. Today they own five farms plus run-off blocks, and the Noorat home farm is the smallest of the lot.
Three of their sons — Dominic, William and Joseph — are running farms on a 50:50 share basis, and a fourth son, Seamus, has joined the enterprise to help with administration and finances.
Combined, the five farms milk nearly 2100 cows and they also have a sideline beef business.
It has been a heady period of growth but fourth-generation farmer Edward wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We had six children at the time, now seven, and realised that if we wanted to give them opportunities such as university or getting into farming, we weren’t going to do it on a 200-cow farm,” he said.
Three of the farms are around Noorat, two near Garvoc. They have two run-off blocks at Mortlake and a leased block beside the Garvoc farms and another leased block at Mortlake.
When the need to grow became obvious, the family didn’t want to over-capitalise on the home farm and didn’t want to be limited by location.
“You might think that a dairy business has to expand in that immediate location, but there are many ways of achieving your goals,” Edward said.
“You can sit and wait for a lifetime for a neighbouring property to come up for sale if you want to expand, and it may never happen.
“You’ve got to make your moves in life when you’re young enough and you’ve got the drive to do what needs to be done.”
More intensive farming on the home farm wasn’t an option, so they looked further afield and purchased a farm near Garvoc.
“The industry was low at the time,” Edward said.
“I work on a theory that the most important thing is to make use of opportunity. Opportunities usually come along at bad times and you’ve always got to run when the other man walks.
“You’re swimming up river all through your career because you’re doing the opposite of everyone else.
“It can be risky but if you stick to what you know and back yourself and your abilities it will work out.”
Although planned for a long time, the transition to 50:50 sharefarming moved quickly after the St Patrick’s Day fires. The two Garvoc farms were burnt, losing up to 3000 tonnes of feed.
William has worked with the family farms for 12 years, Joseph for 10 years. Dominic was living in Echuca and working with Reid Stockfeeds at the time of the fires, Seamus was working with Westpac and living in Adelaide and Sebastian was at university in Melbourne.
Dominic, Seamus and Sebastian all came immediately after the fires to help with the recovery, leading to Dominic and his wife, Kylie, and Seamus to return to work in the business with William and Joseph, in turn leading to 50:50 sharefarm arrangements.
The family members get together each month to plan and discuss things and they have an active WhatsApp farm group.
“The boys work independently in terms of their on-farm operations, but major decisions are made in consultation with the group,” Geraldine said.
“They all have university degrees and are good thinkers and it’s great to see the interaction.”
Although keen on expansion, Edward sticks to the basics when it comes to farming practices.
“I’ve always worked on the theory that you stick to the basics and try to do them as well as you can,” he said.
“You know what your area is capable of doing so don’t get too elaborate in your systems and don’t over capitalise.
“I’ve always been very conscious that you build a farm up to a certain level.
“That’s what happened at the home place; improving it wouldn’t be worth it. If you get too intensive, the costs kill you.
“If you’re satisfied with your cost per hectare and what you’re achieving on the farm, don’t try to go too far — go and buy another farm and build that up to what nature can produce for you.”
Although only about 20 minutes apart, the Garvoc and Noorat farms offer different opportunities and challenges.
“There are two different soil types,” Edward said.
“There’s no bad country anywhere here in the south-west but you’ve got to get into your mind that all country has its seasons.
“We’re lucky to spread our risk by having land in different soil types.
“The Garvoc region is magnificent spring, summer and autumn country, whereas Noorat is magnificent in autumn and winter.
“All the country is good but at different times of the year one will be better than the other.”
The herds are mostly Friesian with some crossbreeds, and they can run bigger cows at Noorat on the more solid land.
The farms have a mix of herringbone and rotary dairies and calving seasons happen within weeks of each other.
The farms have a similar stocking rate of about 1.8 cows per hectare, reduced from two for lifestyle benefits and to improve margins.
“We’re not too intensive,” Edward said.
“If you push to the limit, the farm gets under pressure, the herd gets under pressure and then the operator gets under pressure and the wheels fall off.”
Despite the slight reduction in numbers, the farms still achieve about 560 kg/MS production, boosted by the best 12 months in memory.
“We’ve had four phenomenal seasons in a row,” Edward said.
“We had a cracker of a spring, a mild summer which meant more milk followed by the best autumn break we’ve seen in 35 years and now a mild winter.
“If it does get wet from now on, you know you’re only a month away from spring.”
Geraldine said the farms had been set up with flexibility and succession in mind.
Initially they were run by hired staff but they have gone to another level since the sons took over and focused on their own units.
“We had the attitude that the boys would make their own decisions but we would provide opportunities,” Geraldine said.
“We’re working through succession planning at the moment and the boys have a clear direction now.”
Edward, 64, sees a bright future for dairy and gets annoyed by critics.
“There has been that much pessimism in this industry and it annoys me.
“I blame my generation for running their industry down to their children. What hope have you got of them being interested if you’re always criticising it?”
Geraldine is also looking at the future as a newly elected Corangamite Shire councillor.
“I felt like we needed someone with an agricultural connection on the council,” she said.
“With the boys coming home and investing in the business with us, I started thinking about the legacy we leave for young people.
“They’re committed to the industry and planning their futures here so I want to be a part of what council decides for the region’s future.”